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Rope of Many Colors, an Inca System of Communication
Suppose you didn't have a written language but you wanted to send a message to someone about how much money they owed you, or how many workers you needed in your part of the country? The Incas did not know writing as you and I do, but they sure knew math and they created a system of recording data by means of a quipu (KEE poo) [or khipu in Quechua]. To the north, the Mayan civilization created a written language in the form of hieroglyphs - symbols that represent whole words, syllables and vowels.
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The Incas were very organized and the government was continually monitoring areas under its control. They sent and received many messages a day, relaying information about the kinds of resources needed at a building site or inventories available in storehouses, taxes due or collected, census data, the output of mines, or even how many workers there were at a particular site. (Governments haven't changed much in their need to know.) Runners were sent from station to station, set about 8-15 miles apart, to carry the messages. At each station, an arriving runner would hand off the message to a rested runner, who would then carry the message onward. The messages had to be light and compact so that the runners could carry them easily.
The messages were called a quipu, which is a device made of colored, knotted and braided cotton cords or strings. There is a main cord from which other cords hang. All types of information could be recorded according to the colors, the type of knot used and where it was placed, the kinds of braids, how the cords were connected, and the spaces between the cords and the knots.
A man by the name of Leland L. Locke deciphered the knots in the early 1920's, and correlated them to a mathematical system. The system is similar to the Chinese abacus, but is more complicated. Only the quipu-makers knew how to "read" and "write" the quipus. (For more information, see this book: Code of the Quipu; a Study in Media, Mathematics and Culture, by Marcia and Robert Ascher, Dover Publications, 1997) How could the cords and the system of knots and colors relate to language? Some later researchers think that "nonstandard" quipus also told stories or poems. But, no one really knows how to interpret those knots.
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